As my edits for that MS wound down, I returned to the next MS in the series (book two), which I hadn’t looked at for a few months. It’s up to draft five and has been looked over by a handful of betas, most of who pointed out my overuse of the word “that.”
When you face 200 odd pages that need work, you wonder if it’ll be easier to procrastinate and/or consider a different career/hobby/calling.
But not editing the MS to the best of your ability when you’ve spent so long putting words on those 200 pages isn’t why you started this, right? (right?). So, instead, you look for helpful editing tips, and one of the best I’ve come across is creating a writing style sheet.
What Is A Style Sheet?
A style sheet is used by editors to set the rules for style, usage, and grammar within a manuscript.
Why Every Writer Needs One
Creating a style sheet for your own writing voice will give you that same consistency, control, and help make self-editing easier. It will even deliver a cleaner MS to a professional editor, which can cut down on editing fees.
How To Create A Style Sheet
It’s as simple as opening a new document in your writing program of choice, or a notebook with plenty of blank pages if you’re old school.
To start, decide on your language. If you’re using English, it’ll be American English or British English. I’m Australian, but I set and plan to submit my YA series in the US, so I write in American English (I also spent nine years writing beauty content for an American-based website, so it’s just habit at this point).
The pros of deciding on your language will also help you set and check for varied spellings of common words. After all, you can’t have your MC munching on a donut in chapter one and then buying more doughnuts in chapter five. Sure it’s the same word and it won’t confuse anyone, but it looks unprofessional to have the two different spellings.
After that, choose an editing pass where you will read the MS from start to finish, and make your notes as you work through each sentence.
What To Include In Your Style Sheet
Note what source you’ve been using as your dictionary or grammar guide and add links if they’re online. I use Merriam Webster as my go-to dictionary. By always using the same dictionary and grammar guide, you’ll cut down on potential mistakes.
The bare essentials of a style sheet.
This is for the common words spelled correctly, but with multiple spelling options, such as tee shirt versus t-shirt or seatbelt versus seat belt. You can also include words you mistype with shocking frequency, such as from instead of form.
Noting these down on your style sheet will remind you to check for the kind of mistakes that won’t be flagged by a spell check program.
Seasons, titles, names, streets, days of the week, nationalities, and holidays. Do all of these need capitals? Yes? No? Maybe?
It’s okay if you don’t know. It’s okay if you do know. It’s okay if you did know and now you’ve forgotten because writing a 100,000-word novel has turned your brain to mush. Editing is the time to research and question everything you thought you knew about capitalization. But, if you don’t want to disappear down that Internet rabbit hole every single time you finish a draft, put it into your style sheet for easy reference instead.
Bonus tip: start at this rabbit hole – Grammarly: capitalization rules
If your WIP makes use of well-known phrases, look them up and record them so you can make sure they’re correct. No one wants an editor, agent, or publisher passing because that “holier-than-now” phrase you used but didn‘t check because it sounded “right” is actually “holier-than-thou.”
It’s also a good idea to make sure common phrases are regionally correct for where your story’s set. In Australia, we say “Death warmed up” but in the US they say “Death warmed over”, which I now know thanks to one of my awesome beta readers.
Are you going to spell out numbers (eighty)? Use actual numbers (80)? Or subscribe to the rule that anything from zero to one hundred should be written, and everything above that expressed as numbers? Whatever your choice, add it to your style sheet and keep it consistent.
Same rules apply for writing the time. Decide if you’re going with “a.m./p.m” or “am/pm” or “7 pm” instead of “7:00 pm.”
Bonus rabbit hole: Grammarly: when to spell out numbers
Next Level Style Sheet
Same as the basic but also includes some formatting.
Do you want to use italics for internal thoughts? Backstory? Dream sequences? A story within a story section? Decide what gets italicized and leave a note for your future self.
Are typically used without spaces either side, but some writing mediums like newspapers add a space. Decide if you’re Team Space or not and add it to your style sheet.
Some writers start each chapter with the opening line indented, some don’t. State your preference in your style sheet.
Curly? Straight? No quotes? The option is yours to make. Just keep it consistent (and please re-consider using none, it’s so confusing).
Also, jot down if you’re putting the period or comma inside the quote marks (American English), or outside (British English). And that single quotes should be used to quote a quote within quotation marks. Examples can be found here if that confused you!
Specific Style Sheet
This one relates to just your book/s and can be used alongside the other style sheets.
Once you’ve reached the end of your book, you’ve probably written your character names so many times you can spell them better than your own. But I bet during the intense writing process you didn’t notice for half of chapter eight you spelled “Hayden” as “Haiden.” Same goes for when you changed Mack’s name to Jack somewhere in the middle but forgot about amending it in the first ten chapters. List every character name in your style sheet, including nicknames, and check they’re correct throughout your entire MS.
Recording guidelines for where things are located in your fictional world, especially in made-up places, will help stop issues such as mentioning the local diner is at the edge of town in the first chapter, but having the characters visit it in the middle of town during the final chapter.
Made Up/Setting Specific Spellings
If you’ve made up most of your fictional world, keep track of the unique spellings and the use of alternative spellings (i.e Magick versus Magic) with your style sheet.
If you open your chapter in a different year (2050) or place (The Badlands), or you like to list a character name at the start of your chapters so the reader knows whose head they’re in, put it in your style sheet. Include a note about centering, right justifying, or italicizing that text.
A style sheet can be as detailed or as simple as you want to make it. You don’t even have to use one if you think it’s too much work. Many writers finish books without them.
If you like the idea, but feel overwhelmed, create a style sheet that only lists what you know will help you edit. Or you can adopt common industry style sheets, such as The Chicago Manual of Style.
The point of a style guide is to make the job of editing easier, to keep your novel consistent, and to provide you with a quick reference without having to comb your whole novel every time you need to check one little thing. If that sounds like something you need in your writing life, put your style sheets together and use them to create a faster exit from editing hell. You’ve got lots of other books to write.
— K.M. Allan